A strange thing happens at David Wilson’s 20th high school reunion: the homecoming queen dies. That was as unexpected as David’s arrest for her murder a week later.
A popular high school biology teacher, David and his wife Lisa are caught up in a fast-paced life in Phoenix with two jobs and two kids. Drugs, bullying, adultery, and abortion are underlying tensions that fester and drive wedges between family members. With the Wilsons falling apart, his reunion seemed an oasis of calm.
At least, that’s what David had hoped for. Instead he faces interrogations and accusations from friend and foe alike. Lisa wants to believe in her husband’s innocence but too many fingers are pointing his way. She questions everything she thought she knew about David and his past. But her past is as traumatic as his and the danger she faces is real as she slogs through a myriad of lies.
Was the baby his? Was the friendly neighborhood priest a little too friendly? The homecoming queen’s father and best friend are not helpful as Lisa endeavors to find out what really happened that night.
The answers she discovers are not the ones she sought and they wobble her existence more than she could have ever imagined.
The first time she fell, thick branches caught her fall. Her silky dress, ripped above her knee and waist, left bits of fabric clinging to the bushes, some floated to the ground.
A final push did the trick. With blurred vision and leaves in her mouth, it was hard to yell out although she tried.
“Get away from me! I never liked you!”
The words were muted like an echo in the desert swallowed by emptiness.
Her head exploded with pain when it hit something hard. Earthy smells filled her nostrils.
Pain was a carpeted path to nowhere. Darkness circled the periphery of her vision. She longed for sleep and when it came at last, she stopped worrying about the blood.
So much blood.
* * *
I didn’t want to go to that stinking reunion in the first place. What are they really for anyway? A place where the former homecoming queen gets to shine for a night again, the cheerleaders can snub their peers and the band guys can brag about sneaking cigarettes behind the bandleader’s back?
What was I in high school?
It’s no secret I was one of those snobby cheerleaders who wouldn’t give the math geeks the time of day. They sure got their revenge. The head of my high school’s math club started his own dotcom, sold it for a zillion dollars and, last I heard, was living in Paris. Marvin Ziegler had had a major crush on me, which he couldn’t hide, but I never took him seriously. I was too caught up in being part of the popular crowd…too caught up in myself.
High school social dynamics can be like that. Can be full of regret.
But the only regret I have right now is going to David’s twenty-year high school reunion.
I’m waiting in a lawyer’s office reeking of furniture varnish. The interior designer obviously likes dark wood since every wall is covered with it except one wall of windows. A massive desk has drawers on all sides. It looks French provincial but who really knows besides the decorator. A thickly cushioned chair seems a match for the room’s tone: rich and distinguished. Degrees and photos with important people line the wall like sentries. Carpet colors are muted probably to keep his clients calm. But calm is not how I’m feeling. The receptionist asked me to wait for the man himself to appear like he was God incarnate or at least one of the disciples. He was running late from a previous appointment, but would he be as understanding if I were running late? Doubtful.
Where do these guys get their sense of entitlement? But I elect to sit on a couch by the window wall so I could at least amuse myself with people watching as I wait.
David’s late too. I check my phone for the time. Five minutes past our scheduled appointment. Glancing out the window to the street below, I watch a family try to pile into a minivan. The dad yells at the mother across the top of the car probably something like, “Get in! We’re late for T-ball.” She hurriedly gets in, as does the young son in the back seat. The teenaged daughter, however, stands her ground. Not surprising. She stands forlornly on the curb looking anywhere but at the minivan. She checks her nails as the car speeds off, screeches to a halt and then backs up just as fast. The mother and father both yell out the window at her, wave her towards them. She doesn’t move no matter what incentive or threats they throw at her. A scene I’ve seen our family perform over and over ad nauseam.
Ten minutes. I wonder how much this guy charges per hour. At this rate, it’s going to cost us a fortune.
* * *
One week earlier
I seem to live my life stuck in traffic. This freeway gets worse every day but I think there’s an accident up ahead. We’re moving less than usual this morning.
I sip my coffee and my gaze falls to the gas gauge. I thought Lisa said she would fill up the tank yesterday. She borrowed my car for her latest commercial shoot downtown. I shake my head and frown as the arrow on the gauge is tilting alarmingly towards empty. That woman doesn’t seem to know what planet she’s on half the time.
In resignation, I stare out the grimy windshield at other weary travelers. We all have somewhere to go, but we’re not going to get there anytime soon. The dashboard clock reads seven-ten meaning I’m already late for the early morning meeting. Principal Morse will duly note my tardiness and there will be a stern note in my mailbox. Sometimes it seems he disciplines me like I discipline my ten-year old son. Now I know how Ben feels.
We sluggishly begin to move, haltingly, an inch or two at a time. As I connect to Bluetooth to call in, I catch the woman in the next car over waving at me. Great. My tire must be flat or something. I roll down the window.
“What?” I yell over at her. “Is something wrong?”
“David? Is that you?”
And then I recognize her—it’s Chris Singer or whatever her name is now. She was homecoming queen in high school and I haven’t seen her in years. My eyes dart between her and the road. I don’t want to plow into the car in front of me, but a siren is calling. Long blonde hair, dark glasses dipped on her upturned nose. A frilly blouse showing deep cleavage. She still looks amazing.
“Chris? Yeah,” I laugh. “It’s me. Nice to see you.”
Her gaze roams my face. I hope that piece of tissue isn’t still stuck on my chin where I cut myself shaving this morning.
“Hey! You’re looking good. Are you going to the reunion?” Strands of hair sprinkle on her face like glitter.
I slam on the brakes just before hitting the car I’m trying to avoid. Perspiring, I turn back to the gorgeous woman still watching me.
“Haven’t given it much thought. Why?”
“It’s our twentieth. You’ve got to show. I’m helping plan it and it’s going to be fun. Please come!” She smiles with a pouty redlined mouth that flings me back to some sweaty back seat action in my dad’s cool Camaro many moons ago. The smile turns seductive and she knows what’s going through my mind at warp speed. I was always putty around her and she knew it. “I promise I’ll behave.” It sounds like she doesn’t want to.
“Maybe. I’ll see what’s happening that weekend.”
“Good. It’s coming up fast.” That beautiful face turns up the wattage. She wiggles red-tipped fingers at me. “Can’t wait to catch up. See you there.” Her row of cars is moving at last and she’s gone before I can wave goodbye. I blink wondering if she was actually there at all.
My day moves at a glacial pace through class after class with students who don’t have their homework, the dog ate their homework, or they weren’t aware they even had homework. I’ve been teaching long enough that I wouldn’t even bother with homework anymore, but it’s mandated by school policy. So I continue to nag kids with ineffective words I’ve said a million times.
Meeting Chris Singer accidentally in traffic this morning remains the highlight of my day.
* * *
That familiar name, that handsome face…whew.
I was never a sucker for boys with sandy hair and blue eyes until he came along. Usually guys with some kind of pedigree, family money or just plain bulky biceps caught my attention; David had nothing along those lines to offer. No, he wasn’t beefy or rich, but being a science scholar and a star athlete were strong aphrodisiacs. He was everything I never knew I wanted all rolled up in one tidy package. I waited as long as I did to snare him because I knew that as soon as I did, he would be it for me.
And he was.
The attraction was dangerous.
My father knew I was serious about this one…the one on our porch most evenings and in my pants regularly. Dad found out we were having sex one unassuming day when he stood in my bathroom doorway to tell me something and I was reaching into the cabinet to get the toothpaste. Maybe he’d been eavesdropping on my phone calls too, I can’t be sure, but he had been getting nosier, which was unusual.
Usually my father would ignore me until the end of the month when the credit card bills began coming in and he’d raise hell about the money I was spending. After high school, I know he looked on those times as the “good old days” because my spending really skyrocketed. His fault.
Anyway…the toothpaste. My birth control pills were sandwiched between the tube of toothpaste and a box of bandages. As soon as he saw them, and I’m convinced he was checking on purpose, his face became fiery red and engorged veins bulged on the sides of his neck. He pushed me aside, I fell to the floor nearly hitting my face on the toilet, and he grabbed the round container of pills. Arnold Singer was never a nice man, but he became increasingly hostile after that day.
“What the hell are you doing with these?” He shook the container in my face. I didn’t blanche. What I did in private with the boy I loved was my business, not his.
“We’re Catholic! You do know what that means, correct? You have studied your catechism, have you not?”
“I’m doing nothing wrong and I hate you’re insinuating that I am.”
He slapped me hard across the face. I kicked him in the leg.
“Get away from me!”
Grabbing my arm, Arnold pulled me up from the floor, pushed me behind him and stomped to the toilet. He emptied all the pills out, one by one, and flushed them. Angrily, he threw the empty container in the wastebasket.
“You will quit being a slut and be the good Catholic girl your mother raised you to be.”
I stepped away from him and his rage. “My mother taught me nothing was wrong with the man I loved.”
“He’s not a man; he’s a boy and you’re never to see him again. Understand? If you do, there will be dire consequences.”
“What kind of consequences? What could be worse than living here with you, an unhappy old man, in this drafty mausoleum of a house?”
“This is our home!” he thundered.
“It hasn’t been a home since Mom died.” I hated my quivering lip. Show no fear is what I always told myself.
His wide eyes and dropped jaw told me I’d hit the target as he raised his hand to slap me again. I slipped out of the bathroom and hid out at Marla’s house for a few days. At least until the bruises faded.
Seeing David in traffic today brought all that baggage back up in my throat and I hated my father anew. David was the best thing in my life—I never wanted to let him go.
Maybe we could try again. He and what’s-her-name can’t be that happy. I’ll feel him out at the reunion and see what he thinks.
I know…I’ll pull out all the stops with a sexy designer gown and fuck me heels. He was putty when I got dolled up to go somewhere. He must still desire me…I’ll fan those burning embers and make him want me again.
It can work.
* * *
“Emily, put that phone away. We’re having dinner.”
She slams it on the table. “I’m expecting an important call, Dad.”
“From the president of Harvard or Stanford?”
“Funny. You know I’m not going to either of those places.”
“Not with your grades.”
Lisa intervenes by picking up the platter of food and handing it to me. “More meatloaf?”
I shake my head.
“Don’t you like it?” Her smile fades and her pout reminds me of Chris’ this morning. I catch myself before my lips curve up. Or think I do.
“What’s that smirk about?” She drops the platter back on the table with a thud; juice from the meat slops on her hand. Before she realizes it, Lisa pushes her hair back with the meat-stained hand. My curved mouth has a field day.
“What?” she demands.
It’s times like these when I remember what I always liked about her. She can be a dork, a sweet dork but a dork all the same. It’s an appealing quality.
“You’ve got meat loaf in your hair, sweetie.”
Her eyes widen comically as she realizes what I’ve said. The kids begin to laugh and she has the good grace to laugh too. Endearing little lines crinkle around smiling eyes. The stained hand strays to her pretty chestnut hair on reflex and I reach over to stop her.
“Your hair is already a nice color of brown, honey. Sauce doesn’t really match.”
Ben laughs so hard that a bite of meat loaf falls out of his mouth back on his plate. Emily scrunches her nose wrinkling the freckles she hates and flicks her napkin at him. Before a food fight starts, I throw up my hands.
“Who’s loading the dishwasher tonight, since dinner is apparently over?”
Em pokes Ben in the arm. “It’s Pudgy’s turn.”
“Don’t call your brother that, Emily. It’s not nice.” Lisa gets up to stack plates by the sink.
“Well, he calls me stuck-up.”
“And are you?” I ask.
“No,” she says shrugging a shoulder. “I’m just choosy who I hang out with.”
“Nevertheless,” continues Lisa, “don’t make fun of Ben.”
“Yeah,” Ben sneers, “I’m sensitive.”
Emily stalks off to her room, phone pressed to her ear. Lisa wanders towards the den mumbling about preparing for the next day’s shoot. I want to talk to her about something when Ben comes up behind me.
I turn to face him. “Yes, son?”
“I, ah…” He coughs, clears his throat. “I need to talk to you.”
Stupidly, I glance at my watch. He catches it.
“Unless you don’t have time.”
I shake my head. “No, no. Of course, I have time. Let me help you with the dishes. Talk to me.”
We’re rinsing dirty plates and glasses before stacking them in the dishwasher. My heart stops when he finally blurts out he’s being bullied at school. I lay a hand on his shoulder. “How long has this been going on?”
“Since school started.”
“That long?” My mouth drops open. “Why haven’t you said anything before now?”
He blushes, my smart, wonderful son actually blushes. “I wanted to take care of it myself.”
“And have you?”
I turn on the dishwasher and go back to the dinner table. I pull out a chair and motion for him to sit. “Tell me what you need.”
For the next half hour or so, Ben tells me what has been going on and what he needs from me. What he plans to do. I nod my head in wonder that I helped create such a brave boy. I agree to do as he asks and we decide to talk more this weekend. In a fog, I go into the office to talk to Lisa about it, but she’s on the phone neck deep in conversation with the other photographer for tomorrow’s shoot. She’s stressed to the max as usual and now is not the right time to tell her about Ben. Or maybe she already knows. We haven’t been able to connect much these past weeks. I also want to mention the reunion coming up. She didn’t have much fun at the last one, so that’s another subject that sticks in my mouth.
With Lisa in the office working, Emily in her bedroom talking on her phone, Ben on his computer playing a video game, I realize no one will notice that I’m not there. I write a note anyway and leave it on the kitchen table. I have to go back to school to set up tomorrow’s lab. Once I do that, I think I’m heading for the nearest pub. I need a beer.
* * *
The next day
Hair and makeup are taking their sweet time, but I guess that’s all right. The freaking director hasn’t even shown up yet. One of the crew said they’d had a late one last night, so I assume that means we’ll all sit on our collective asses while we wait for the prince to make an appearance. The air conditioner doesn’t seem to be working right and it’s got to be one hundred degrees in the shade outside. Phoenix weather isn’t for the faint of heart.
Everyone’s listlessly milling around. Everything is set up. The latest model is sitting on a chair in the center of the all-white background we’ve arranged for this commercial. While her makeup is being retouched, the guys are checking their equipment, rechecking the lighting. Several bottles of shampoo sit on a table off to one side, basking in their colorful glory. Buy me, they seem to say, and your shiny hair will get you noticed. I shake my head. Shampoo won’t make you as pretty as this model, but that’s the story we’re trying to sell. I walk out of the busy area to clean my camera lens. Glancing back, I wonder for the millionth time what I’m doing shooting commercials. One of the tech guys kisses the model’s graceful hand and everyone laughs. That small action clicks memories of last night in my mind like a series of frames on film.
David snuggled into my side and woke me with his cold feet.
“Hey! Get some socks on.” I tried to turn away from him but he threw an equally cold arm around me. “Where have you been? Sitting in the refrigerator?”
“No,” he chuckled, softly blowing tiny puffs of air in my ear. “But as long as you’re awake…” He traced my profile with kisses and turned my face to his. As soon as he pressed his lips to mine, tenderness switched to passion from the word go. I marveled at the instant connection that had always been there between us and melted into him without thinking. He smoothly turned up the heat until we were writhing, sweaty and desperate for release.
His fingertips pressed into my shoulders.
His mouth smashed into my mine over and over.
His long body weighed heavily as he took what he needed, allowed me some as well. David always had that magnetism, the ability to make me feel like…that’s it. Just making me feel.
Breathing subdued, I could hear the faucet dripping in the bathroom and the red roar that had ripped through me quieted to a tipsy tiptoe. Lying there, I felt drunk from the taste of him, wondered why the bed seemed to be swaying. He didn’t spring up as usual, dash into the bathroom to do his man business and stagger back to fall instantly asleep.
He stayed put. With his sticky body pressed to mine, I needed to move.
My hands tried to push him back. He responded by grabbing my face and planting kisses everywhere he could reach. I could feel him hardening against my thigh.
“Again,” he whispered in my mouth.
“David.” I pushed again. “We both have to get up early. Get some sleep.”
“No.” He rose up on his hands to look at me directly. “I feel like I’m losing you.”
I blinked. Where in the world had that come from?
“No. Show me how you feel, don’t tell me.” He sounded mildly anxious, his eyes wide and wary.
“You have an early meeting tomorrow. I have to drop the kids off at school before the shoot. We need to—”
He quickly moved away, swung his legs off the bed. “We need to connect once in a while, damn it, Lisa. When was the last time we made love? And tonight doesn’t count.”
My mind blanked. “It was, um, probably…” The words trailed off and died as I tried to remember.
He jerked upright, grabbed a bottle of water from the nightstand and chugged it down. I watched the muscles contract in his throat as he swallowed. His anger was palpable and inevitable as he leveled his stormy gaze on me.
“It’s been five months. Five damn months.” A bushy brow arched. “Did you know that? Do you care?”
I pushed up to a sitting position, wringing hands that suddenly had nothing to do. “Of course, I care, David, it’s just that—”
“Do not give me any lame excuses about our fast-paced lives, careers, kids, whatever.” He sat down on the bed and reached out to place his hand on mine. The air in the room stilled.
“Tell me straight: are you having an affair?” His voice was so low I had to lean toward him to hear.
“An affair? Why would you think that?” I pulled my hand out from his. “How dare you!” I shivered uncontrollably, got out of bed and stormed into the bathroom. I flicked on the light and turned. “I can account for every nanosecond of my day, you bastard, and,” I crossed my arms, stared at him, “how convenient for you to turn this on me. You’re the one who’s always going back to the school at night supposedly to set up labs and then you come home horny and smelling like beer! What am I supposed to think?”
During my tirade, he’d sauntered closer until we were nearly chest to chest, both breathing hard. Keeping our eyes locked, he palmed my breasts, ran his hands slowly over my quivering body. A traitorous finger outlined the lips I knew so well before my hand curled around the nape of his neck to draw his face closer to mine. It wasn’t common sense; it was chemistry.
“Lisa! You with us?” The director prince snaps his fingers before my face.
“Yeah. Yes, I’m here.”
“Well, you sure looked nine million miles away and we need to get busy here.”
I don’t bother to mention that we had been waiting an hour for his grand entrance because I want to keep this job. Or do I? As I click away trying to show the plastic bottle with the golden liquid in its best light, I decide I have to. On the plus side, I’m my own boss—when I have a gig—and we need the money. Emily will be going to college in four years and her college fund is seriously lacking. Ben’s braces cost a bundle and David’s teaching salary won’t pay for everything we need. Right. It’s so wonderful being a two-salary couple.
I move to shoot different angles. So what if my professional dream has always been to see my work hanging in a gallery somewhere. If I’d learned anything from having to work since the age of fourteen, I learned that you can’t always get what you want. I think the Rolling Stones said it first.
The model shifts prompting hair and makeup to rush back in to fix whatever has been altered. I stop to reload my camera.
* * *
“No, I don’t want any. Get away from me.”
“What the fuck, Emily. I thought you were cool. Guess not.”
“I may not be cool but I’m not stupid either. Go away, you freak.”
The skinny boy throws up hands with rings on nearly every finger. “No need for name-calling. I thought I was helping out. My mistake.” He steps away tripping over the long laces of his untied combat boots. A teacher standing in the open doorway glances from him to me with disinterest and goes back inside. I take a few calming breaths before opening my locker. Baby fine hair falls in my eyes and my shaky hand pushes it back before reaching in for my social studies book. Two girls with matching white polo shirts with Greenbrae Jr. High written above a front pocket suddenly flank me.
“What did Tyler want?” asks the girl on my right.
“Come on, Em. You’ve got to loosen up,” says the other girl.
I turn to stare at her. “What are you talking about, Allison?”
“Don’t give us that crap. You’re wound up tight and need to chill.”
I swing my head the other way. “I need to… chill? Really, Brooke?”
Slamming my locker, I turn completely around and lean against it. The metal feels cool through my thin shirt. My feet shift sluggishly as if I were up to my ankles in mud.
“Yes, really. All you do is bitch about your parents…”
“…Or brother,” adds Allison. “So we thought—”
“You needed a mood enhancer.”
I stare at them both. “You guys sent Tyler over to me?” And I thought they were my friends.
Allison shrugs. “Just a pick-me-up. We all do it. Thought you wanted to hang with us…”
Weighing my options makes my head spin. Eighth is so much harder than seventh. One minute I’m a kid and the next—I’m not sure what category I belong in anymore. And with high school breathing down my neck next year, I’m sure to be in for a rocky ride. A quick decision is called for.
I smile. “Maybe you’re right. It’s been awful at home lately and—”
“Parents still fighting?” asks Brooke. I fall in step with them as we’re heading for class.
I heard angry voices late last night. My parents create a happy front, but both Ben and I are beginning to worry about them. All is not as happy as it seems.
Brooke and Allison babble on about their terrible lives while my mind drifts. Although we’re at the same school, Ben is in sixth grade and in a different wing. I rarely see him, but I did catch a glimpse in the cafeteria last week. Some big boys were crowding him, messing with his glasses. It had bothered me at the time, but I forgot about it soon enough.
Allison gets on her phone and in a flash, Tyler swings around the next corner heading right for us, sneaky look on his scruffy face. I swallow hard enough to know something is choking me, but the four of us duck into an alcove, a small storage area where the janitors keep mops and pails. A few minutes later, we emerge with big smiles heading towards the exit.
* * *
The gym smells like old sweat socks stuck in an abandoned locker for five years. Bright yellow signs advertise the success of past basketball teams and a red scoreboard flashes numbers off and on. An electrician perches on a tall ladder attempting to figure out the problem. Daren goes in for a layup just as I charge him. The basketball hits the backboard but refuses to go in the net.
“Foul, Mr. Wilson!”
“Come on, Dylan,” I wipe the sweat off my face with the bottom of my shirt. “We’re just playing a friendly pick-up game here.”
“There’s still rules and you fouled him.”
Daren flashes gleaming white teeth at us both. “I like your style, Dylan, my man. How’d ya like to get in my homeroom instead of Mr. Wilson’s?” He grabs the ball out of Dylan’s hands and moves in for the shot. Once in the net, the basketball drops onto the polished floor, but no one makes a move for it. The three of us just stand looking at the ball with perspiration dripping off our faces. Damp shirts become damper. The electrician snips a wire and steps down the ladder. We watch him fold it up, swing it under his arm and walk out of the gym. The huge wall clock reads five o’clock.
Dylan runs over to the sidelines, retrieves the basketball and starts walking towards the boys’ locker room.
“Hey! Where you goin’?” I yell after him.
“I’m goin’ home. You two try to figure out how to play basketball.”
Daren and I exchange ill-concealed smirks. “What’s the fun in that?” Daren calls out to an empty gym. Dylan’s gone, along with the ball and our game.
I pick up a towel from a side bench. “That’s what we get for trying to be nice guys, playing a little one-on-one with the kids after school.”
“Yeah,” Daren chuckles. “No good deed goes unpunished.”
“Who said that? Hemingway?”
“No, I did.” He angles his head at me. “Didn’t you just hear me?”
I plop down on the bench, reach over to retie my sneakers. They’re torn and ugly but are still the best shoes I’ve got for basketball. Does that mean I’m stuck in a rut, superstitious or just cheap?
Daren folds his long body on the bench near me. He stretches arms out that must have a wingspan of five feet. If he were a bird…
“Okay. So it was a piss poor joke.” He cracks every knuckle on both hands while I watch mesmerized. “How’s Lisa?”
And I’m back in the bedroom alternately having fabulous sex with my wife or trying to get answers from her. I suspect I got more sex than I have in months to quiet my questions. Or were they accusations?
“Yep. She’s a stone fox.”
Not what I want to hear right now.
“Dave? What’s cookin’?”
“Nothing.” I look over into an earnest face. “She’s fine. Why do you ask?”
“It’s just a question, not an inquisition.” He stares at me hard. “I ask about your wife and you ask about my dog. It’s our standard icebreaker into conversation.”
“Sorry.” I shake my head, trying to clear the cobwebs away to make a clear picture. “I’m just preoccupied, I guess.”
A shoulder moves up and down. “If it’s not the job, it’s the kids. If it’s not the kids, it’s the wife or the relatives or emptying the rain gutters or fixing that loose front step before the mailman blows the whistle on me. A big worry is how I’m going to find the money to send Emily to college, much less Ben.”
“Whoa. Calm down, boy. I didn’t want a dissertation.”
“And you’ll never get one from me because Lisa got pregnant and I had to drop out of grad school before I could finish my PhD.”
He reaches out a hand, pats my arm. “You’re worked up about something and it has nothing to do with all that family stuff. Out with it.”
I stand, start to walk away.
Daren won’t have it. “Talk to me, man.”
Turning back, I exhale a long breath. My arms hang limply at my sides and my feet shift from one stance to another. All the air in the gym seems to have been sucked out. The air in my lungs went right with it. The scoreboard begins to sway and Daren pulls me back down on the bench before I keel over. He pushes my head between my knees.
“Breathe, buddy. You’re hyperventilating. What the hell?”
The little white dots flickering before my eyes slowly begin to fade, but the acidic taste in my mouth doesn’t go away. The fear I feel is as real as Daren’s concerned gaze looking right through me.
“This is serious. Tell me something, anything or I’m going to see if the nurse is still here. You havin’ another panic attack?”
I don’t want his anxiety kicking mine up any higher so I shrug. I feel the words forming in my mind, slipping into my throat and attempting to spill out my parched lips with no success. Licking without any saliva doesn’t help.
He grabs a bottle of water from his backpack by the bench and hands it to me. “Here. Drink this.”
The water splashes in and I swirl some before swallowing. I’m hoping the words are swallowed too, but Daren won’t let up. It’s not like I want to admit this.
“I think…Lisa’s…fooling around.”
His jaw drops to the gym floor as he’s caught unaware. For the first time, I notice the glistening sweat on his dark skin. It’s like my senses are on full alert and I see, no, I observe for maybe the first time in months. The minute hand of the clock staggers noisily forward. One tube of the overhead fluorescent lighting isn’t working way over in the far corner of the gym. It will take me twenty-eight steps to walk to the exit and the trees beyond the high windows are swaying to a light breeze. Phoenix could use a breeze or two. It’s been hotter than the hubs of hell lately.
He’s still staring at me.
“Don’t think so.”
“How do you know?”
“Her work schedule is crazy and she talks about her boss all the time. Every conversation I’ve heard her have with the other photographer on this shoot is about how cute the guy is, how talented, they make these chick jokes.”
“I walked into the office last night and heard her say she’d like to get her ‘some of that’.”
“Women say that shit all the time to each other and it doesn’t mean anything. You’re taking what she said out of context.”
I think about that for a minute. “Maybe.”
“Maybe, nothing. You guys are the happiest couple I know. You’re my standard for how a marriage should be.”
I cocked my head. “I fear for you, Daren. We’re a long way from ideal.” Yeah, if marriage means having sex once every five months, then sure. Put us on that pedestal.
“You look like you just swallowed a bug.”
“I’m having trouble swallowing anything these days.”
I collect myself, stand and begin walking across the gym. Daren falls in step with me.
“Let’s go have us a beer.”
“Lisa doesn’t like me smelling of beer when I kiss her.”
He drapes a long arm around my shoulders. “Trust me, buddy. You can use a beer and a big step back.”
My face pinches as I try to understand. “A big step back from what?”
“Out of yourself. That big old spotlight of life is shining the bejesus out of you and you need to take five. Come have a beer.”
“Maybe just one.”
I think I hear him mutter you could use five, but I don’t respond. He’s right. I need to step out of myself for an hour and learn how to breathe normally. These short, anxious puffs aren’t filling my lungs and they’re making me light-headed. I could use a trip to Tahiti.
Halfway into my first beer, I get a call from the school. Ben’s been hurt in a fight and they’ve called an ambulance. That last gulp threatens to come up as I ask what hospital they’re taking him to and then rush out of the pub without informing Daren. He follows me and jerks the keys out of my shaking hand.
“You’re in no condition to drive, man.”
“I haven’t even had one whole beer.”
“That’s not what makes you unable to drive. You’ve lost all face color and for a white man, that’s saying something!” He points to the passenger seat. “Get in. I’m driving.”
Mumbling about being bossy, I climb into the car still shaking. “Hurry up before I pass out.”
He starts the engine, backs out of the parking lot. “Not gonna happen as long as that adrenaline is coursing through your veins. Sit tight. I’ll get ya there…in one piece,” he adds for good measure.
I close my eyes, but all I can see is a selfish guy complaining about his sweet wife while his son gets beaten up by bullies. Where was I? Why wasn’t I helping Ben? Because he asked me not to, that’s why.
It’s not good but it’s a reason.
Daren drives too fast and we’re there.
Later that evening
I get Ben home from Emergency with a black eye, cut lip and taped ribs. The guys he told me about jumped him after math club. When I asked him why, he said because he wears glasses. That made no kind of sense whatsoever and I try to get Lisa on the phone. Again. She doesn’t pick up and it’s like the tenth time I’ve tried to call her. Her shoot must be running over and I have no idea what the location is this time. I realize I forgot to ask her. But I make a mental note to tell her she needs to check her phone frequently just in case.
In case of what? In case I’m freaking out about not being able to find her? Maybe this is my problem and not hers. Seductive Chris Singer stalks my brain and I wonder where she is too.
Medical science has done all it can for Ben and he’s asleep in his bed. I pace the living room wondering what to do next. It’s too late to call the school. I want to talk to the principal. With the phone in my hand, I leave a message for Emily to come home, she’s late too, and then I call the cops.
“I’d like to report that my son was beaten up at school today.”
“How old is your son?”
“Were the assailants under eighteen as well?”
“You’ll need to speak to someone in Juvenile Court. I’ll switch you over.”
A stern voice lectures me about not drinking and driving for a couple of long minutes until another equally stern voice breaks in.
“Dan Stevens here. May I help you?”
“I’d like to file charges against two boys who beat up my son today.”
“I can take some information by phone, but I’ll need to have you come down for a longer deposition. And I’ll need pictures of the damage sustained by your son.”
“Fine. What do you need right now?”
“Your son’s name, age and a brief summary of what happened. Like I said, I need to have you here to make and sign a formal statement before we can take any action.”
“Okay, his name is Ben Wilson, he’s ten years old and in sixth grade at Greenbrae Junior High School.”
“Is that school in north Phoenix?”
“That’s right. Anyway, he told me last night that some boys were bothering him, but he planned to take the problem to his counselor to handle it.”
“What were they bothering him about?”
“They call him names like geek, nerd, four-eyes since he wears glasses and apparently adopted him to bully.”
“Cyber bullying as well?”
“Ben didn’t mention any.”
“We’ll come back to that. What did the counselor do?”
“He called the boys in and tried to do an intervention. After that, they hunted Ben down and beat the crap out of him. He’s a mess.”
“All right. Let me get my calendar out to make an appointment for you to come down some time tomorrow. Hang on a second.”
I’d been pacing all over the house with the phone pressed so tightly to my ear that I’m getting a mild headache. Checking on Ben again, I absently walk into the office where Lisa’s computer is sitting on the desk. She always uploads her photos to her computer when she’s working to get a general feel for the shoot. She develops photos in a small dark room we’d set up for her use since not all of her work is digital. I’m surprised to see the computer sitting open and I sit in the desk chair to take a load off.
Stevens takes his sweet time finding his calendar and I turn on Lisa’s computer to check my email. Boy, I shouldn’t have done that. Front and center is an email to her from a Marv Ziegler. It’s not a love note, but there’s something personal going on between them that I’m reading between the lines. I check past emails and there’s several from Ziegler and Lisa back and forth to one another. Maybe they weren’t chatting, but it hit me in the gut all the same.
“Mr. Wilson? You there?”
“Yeah, I’m here,” I reply dumbly as I stare at the illuminating monitor.
“Could you come in tomorrow at five?”
“Here’s the address. Got a pencil handy?”
I blindly jot down the time and address on whatever is close by. I can’t drag my eyes from the computer.
“See you tomorrow, Mr. Wilson. Don’t forget the pictures of your son’s injuries.”
I nod instead of replying and the phone falls out of my hand.
Don’t jump to conclusions. Don’t jump to conclusions.
I’m jumping to conclusions as I tell myself not to. I can’t help it. The evidence is right before my eyes. I only suspected Lisa. I guess there is something going on and who the hell is Marv Ziegler? My mind warns me about self-fulfilling prophecies, but I don’t listen. Did I want her to be having an affair? Is that what I’m thinking? Just because I’m having a few lewd thoughts about Chris Singer doesn’t mean that I want Lisa to be having similar thoughts about some jock she knew in high school. Or some beefy director on her latest photo shoot.
I’m forgetting to breathe and another panic attack is taking over. I swing away from the desk and my head goes between my knees. Second time today. If this keeps up, I’m going to ask the doc for Valium. Life is hitting me between the eyes and I need, what do the kids call it? A mood enhancer. Tahiti would be better, but I can’t afford it and spring vacation is two months away.
I need to get a grip and find my wife.
* * *